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By | Timothy Prickett Morgan 8th February 2010 05:02

Power7 - Big Blue eye on UNIX

Four server preemptive launch

The scuttlebutt is that IBM seemed perfectly content to wait until May to launch the Power7-based Power Systems servers, but something changed and compelled the company to move up the announcement of its first machines using the eight-core processor to today. Big Blue is not in a habit of explaining its motives or its timing for product launches, but it seems clear that IBM wanted to get out in front of a whole lot of processor and systems launches that are expected between now and the summer.

With so many customers expecting Power7-based machines, it wasn't like IBM was going to have stellar sales of existing Power Systems machines, which run the AIX, Linux, or i/OS operating systems and which are based on the Power6 and Power6+ processors.

The machines announced today are clearly aimed at blunting the attack of midrange X64, Itanium, and Sparc servers as well as some bigger boxes that are going to start creeping up into the power class of the current top-end Power6-based Power 595 machine, which packs 64 cores running at 5 GHz into a single system image. IBM is especially focused on the Unix part of the Power Systems business, where it has generated $1.6bn in revenues in takeouts of Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems boxes in the past three years.

Scott Handy, vice president of worldwide strategy and marketing for the Power Systems division at IBM, says that Sun and HP are each bringing in about $4bn a year in Unix systems sales, with Big Blue getting the lion's share of what is left over of the $14bn Unix market.

"We have 40 per cent share, but this is still a tremendous opportunity here," says Handy. "We are taking Unix to a new level." And by Unix, IBM apparently means both AIX and i/OS, which share the scalability, reliability, and energy-efficiency attributes of a system designed to support mission-critical workloads.

"We want to position Power as the future of Unix. HP and Sun haven't caught up to Power6, and we will trounce them with Power7. The best marketing executive in the world cannot position Tukwila against Nehalem-EX, which does not support HP-UX," Handy says with a laugh, talking about the four-core Itanium chip that Intel will announce today and the eight-core Xeon chip due sometime in the first half of this year. "HP-UX customers are going to be just as distraught in 2010 as Sun customers were in 2009."

Neither HP nor Oracle, the new owner of the Sun Solaris server business, seem to think there is as much blood in the water as Big Blue thinks it smells. But clearly there is going to be some fierce competition in the server racket this year, particularly with so many projects delayed since the summer of 2008, leaving servers in need of capacity upgrades, and budgets under continuing pressure.

The blood may have more to do with red ink associated with steep discounting than technical superiority when all is said and done in 2010. Which would make it look a lot like 2002 and 2003 - truly awful years for Sun, so-so for the then-merged HP/Compaq, and great ones for IBM's Unix biz.

Contrary to the rumors from last week, IBM did not launch the Power7 line with a kicker to the current Power 520 entry server. (More than a few readers told me this in private; perhaps they all heard the same wrong information). What IBM is rolling out today are four machines in the midrange and enterprise class, which leave entry and blade servers as well as big iron boxes to come out later in 2010.

Handy would not be specific about exactly what these machines would look like, but after some arm twisting he said that customers with current Power 520s (presumably using Power6 and Power6+ chips) will have an upgrade path to the future Power7-based entry machines (presumably to be called the Power 720 to be consistent with the names chosen for the four machines launched today).

Handy also confirmed that the kicker to the high-end Power 595 would have the same 32 sockets, presumably to be called the Power 795, and added that it would cram 256 cores into the same thermal envelope that a Power6-based machine with 64 cores had.

The mount

Like the prior generations of Power-based machines from IBM, the CPUs are mounted on processor cards that mount vertically into the system motherboards. Each processor card has sockets for the Power processors and slots for the main memory. I/O subsystems and external peripherals plug into the system board, which links out to the processor card through a backplane. (Generally speaking, this is the same sort of design that is expected with Intel's future "Becton" Nehalem-EX Xeon processors for multiprocessor SMP machines).

Like IBM's high-end System x servers, which can scale outside of the box using NUMA-like clustering (thanks to some technology Big Blue got when it bought Sequent Computer Systems in July 1999 for $180m). Up to four Power server nodes can be linked into a single system image for AIX, i/OS, or Linux using this interconnect. This interconnect is not available on every machine, and customers pay a premium for the scalability that comes from this interconnect.

The first new machine in the Power7 family of systems is the Power 750, which is the follow-on to the midrange Power 550 that was based on the Power5 and Power6 generations of chips. The Power 750 comes in the workhorse 4U chassis that IBM has had since 2004, but it has been modified to allow for up to eight front-mounted, small form factor disk or SSD drives. That 4U chassis can be configured as a rack or tower server and has room for up to four processor cards, each with 16 DDR3 main memory slots and each with a single processor socket.

This box has the widest variety of Power7 processor options among all of the machines announced thus far. One option has six-core Power7s running at 3.3 GHz, another uses eight-core processor cards that run at 3 GHz or 3.3 GHz. There is a top-end machine that only comes with four processor cards with all 32 cores turned on and running at 3.55 GHz. There seems little doubt that this box will carry the heftiest price.

The Power 750 offers from 8 GB to 512 GB of main memory expansion, with a maximum of 128 GB per processor card using 8 GB DDR3 DIMMs. The box has three PCI-Express and two PCI-X slots peripheral slots and a single GX+ adapter slot, which is used to hook remote I/O drawers (based on a modified InfiniBand link that IBM calls 12X) or graphics cards into the machine. The Power 750 can have four 12X I/O drawers using PCI-Express slots or twice as many using PCI-X drawers. With all of the I/O drawers in the box, the Power 750 can have 584 disk or SSD drives directly attached to it.

The Power 755 is a version of the Power 750 server that is tweaked specifically for supercomputing workloads (and maybe for parallel database clusters running IBM's DB2 PureScale software, but the company has not said). The Power 755 only comes with the four processor cards in the box loaded with 3.3 GHz cores and all 32 cores are activated. This machine can only have 64 GB of memory per processor card, however, which means memory tops out at 256 GB. Other than that and the fact that this machine only supports AIX and Linux, it looks just like a Power 750.

The 770 and the 780

The Power 770 is a version of the Power 750 chassis that has two disk bays removed and the NUMA/SMP clustering bus added in. The Power 770 server node also has two GX++ slots per node, which means it can support a lot more 12X I/O drawers and therefore a lot more peripherals. Each Power 770 server node can have six disks or SSDs and has six PCI-Express slots. With the maximum of 16 12X-based I/O drawers, the machine can support 184 PCI-Express slots across four server nodes and 1,320 disk or SSD drives.

The Power 770 nodes have two flavors of processor cards: one using six-core Power7s running at 3.5 GHz (with 12, 24, 36, or 48 cores activated) and another using eight-core Power7s running at 3.1 GHz (with 16, 32, 48, and 64 cores activated). Main memory on the machine spans from 32 GB to 2 TB. To get memory capacity up to 1 TB means dropping the memory speed from 1.33 GHz down to 1 GHz, and going up to 2 TB means dropping down to 800 MHz. For some workloads, the lower speed of the memory will negate the extra capacity benefits.

The Power 780 is essentially the same machine as the Power 770 with three changes. First, it uses processor cards that have two sockets per card instead of one, which means it has double the processor cores. (However, the memory slots stay the same at 16 per processor card and the maximum main stays at the same 32 GB to 2 TB range per machine).

The second change is that it comes in the same enterprise-class, green-striped chassis that the Power 595 and System z mainframes have. (It has the skin of a mainframe, but the guts of a NUMA cluster with an architecture that IBM has been developing for a decade and selling for six years.) The other big change is the machine only has one set of processor cards, but they have two operational modes. In MaxCore mode, as IBM calls it, each node in the Power 780 cluster has four processor cards for between 16 and 64 cores running at 3.8 GHz, depending on if you buy one to four nodes.

If you happen to have a workload, like an OLTP system, that would do better having fewer cores running at a higher speed, you flip a switch in the microcode, reboot the system, and when it starts up you run in TurboCore mode. In this mode, the cores run at 4.1 GHz, but only half of them turn on. Those remaining cores in the system have access to both memory controllers on the Power7 chips and its full 32 MB of embedded DRAM L3 cache memory. For database workloads, TurboCore mode can boost performance by 20 per cent over MaxCore mode on the same physical machine.

IBM is not publishing pricing information on the machines yet, but Handy says that the memory price cuts that IBM made on Power6 and Power6+ systems back in November, where it cut DDR2 memory tags by between 28 and 70 per cent, were in fact setting the prices on older memory to the same level as IBM expected to charge for DDR3 memory on the Power7-based servers.

As for the systems themselves, IBM's plan is to hold prices roughly the same as the prior Power6 and Power6+ systems and give customers the extra performance. "This is very aggressive price/performance for us, and we are striking while the iron is hot," Handy says.

All of the Power7 machines announced today can support the current AIX 6.1 release as well as the earlier AIX 5.3 release. Customers using i/OS are going to have to move up to the i 6.1.1 interim release that was announced last quarter, and to fully exploit the Power7 feature set, they will have to wait to see i 7.1 later this year. (The word on the street is that i 7.1 will be available in the third week of April, but IBM did not confirm this).

Red Hat Enterprise Linux is not supported on these Power7 machines, which is a bit odd, but apparently IBM and Red Hat are working on it. Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10 SP3 and 11 will run on the machines today. IBM plans to start shipping the Power 750 and 755 servers on February 19, The larger Power 770 and 780 machines will ship on March 16. ®

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